Saturday, October 10, 2009

Estus Pirkle

Estus Pirkle (1930- 2005)

If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971)
The Burning Hell (1974)
The Believer's Heaven (1977)

The best way I have to describe the films of Estus Pirkle is that they are Jack Chick tracts come to life. Chick tracts, of course, are those hateful little rectangular comic books that you find left atop bus station urinals and other such places that find the general public in a position of spiritual vulnerability. Chick tracts always followed the formula of someone being presented with a moral dilemma, making the wrong choice, refusing an offer to repent, and ending up cast into everlasting Hell.

Now Chick and Pirkle had no affiliation that I'm aware of beyond the common theology that
God is a cranky old white man who sits on a throne and sends people to hell who don't get with the program and do as they are told. Especially Commies.

But while Chick tracts were ubiquitous, the films of Estus Pirkle were much harder to come by. If you were involved in Baptist youth activities in the US in the 1970s, there is a good chance that you were made to attend a screening of "The Burning Hell" or "If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do," or "The Believers Heaven." Otherwise you were out of luck. Pirkle steadfastly refused to make his films available on tape during the video boom of the 80s and 90s. To see the films one had to rent the actual 16mm print for a not insignificant sum and sign a multi-page legal agreement.

But tantalizing bits of his films did find their way into the secular realm. The San Francisco experimental group Negativland used a soundclip from the Footmen film on their 1987 breakthrough album Escape from Noise to magnificent effect:

Pirkle's film "If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do" dealt with the imminent Commie takeover of the USA, and the soundbite in question comes from a scene where the new Commie masters are driving down Main Street USA with a loudspeaker blasting the aforementioned quote. Quite a scene and quite a song.

Diane Keaton used good size chunks of Pirkle's films in her dippy 1987 documentary Heaven.

But blessings abounded for those dedicated students of Kooky Kristian Kulture who tracked down full length copies of Pirkle's films. The vexingly titled "If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do" was Pirkle's first and best. Filmed in Pirkle's hometown of New Albany,
Mississippi, the film uses footage of Pirkle's sermons (he was a Baptist preacher) interspersed with the story of a sinful woman and the Communist takeover of America. It was notably produced by the Ormond Organization, the southern drive-in kingpins known for such exploitation classics as "The Monster and the Stripper" and "Please Don't Touch Me." My reviewing skills are woefully inadequate, but let me say that if the prospect of anti-Commie hysteria dished up Southern style in the early 70s with a cast of beehived locals, complete with scenes of torture and beheadings (of children!), sounds like a good time, then Footmen is for you!

Next came "The Burning Hell," a bigger budget affair with scenes filmed in the Holy Land and depictions of Hell that are crudely effective. The premiss has something to do with a guy who gets his head ripped off in a motorcycle accident and ends up in Hell. It's too late for him but not for you blah blah blah.

Last is "The Believer's Heaven." Here is a clip used by Diane Keaton in "Heaven," mentioned previously:

Bootleg copies of Pirkle's movies pop up from time to time on online stores which cater to fans of the weird and offbeat. You may also be able to get a legitimate copy here.

Estus on Wiki

More reviews - here and here and here

Watch online, but be warned, these copies are pretty grainy:

Check out this guy's most excellent Flickr photostream

and yes, there is a soundtrack album!


  1. I was made to sit through both of these films as a child-about second grade. They scared me to no end-especially the "If footman...horses do?" To this day a resent his method of sharing the concept of Christianity-it did more harm than good-can you imagine Jesus resorting to such tactics?
    He should have been stopped!!!

    1. Careful there, if you resist God how shall you be found?

      Whether or not his films were effective he preached the truth, if that made you uncomfortable then let God be praised